Interview: James L. Cambias, author of A Darkling Sea

A DARKLING SEA by James L. Cambias, just came out at the end of January, and he stopped by to answer a few questions about the new book! Also, be sure to stop by the book’s website-it’s got a ton of extra content!

James Cambias (2)Will you tell us about your new book, A DARKLING SEA, and what inspired you to write it?
That’s a lot to talk about! Okay, A Darkling Sea tells the story of a group of human scientists on a distant world called Ilmatar. The planet’s covered with ocean, underneath a mile-thick layer of ice. In that cold, eternally dark water, they’re trying to learn about the intelligent inhabitants of Ilmatar, beings like large lobsters who sense their environment via sonar. However, another spacefaring civilization, called the Sholen, have tried to forbid the humans from making contact with the Ilmatarans, out of a desire to protect the native beings from interference by humans.

When one of the humans tries to get around the rules using a stealth diving suit, he is found by the Ilmatarans and winds up a scientific specimen himself. Unfortunately, that incident means the humans have violated their agreement with the Sholen. The Sholen send a team to investigate, who decide to force the humans off Ilmatar. The humans resist, and events spiral out of control. Meanwhile, an Ilmataran scientist is trying to learn about the mysterious aliens on his planet, where they come from, and what they are doing.

The inspiration came from two very different sources. The first was the history of World War I in Africa: I was fascinated by the idea of tiny “alien” forces fighting each other in a vast and mostly hostile landscape, all while the native inhabitants watch in bewilderment. The second inspiration was the famous “Prime Directive” in the Star Trek series. I wanted to examine some of the flaws and arrogance embedded in that doctrine.

adarklingseaHave you always wanted to be a writer? Will you tell us more about yourself and your background?
Short answer: yes. I’ve been writing science fiction stories since I was 14 years old (though I didn’t sell any for 20 years). This is what I’ve always wanted to do.

I grew up in New Orleans, went to college in Chicago, and married a scientist. We spent several years bouncing around college towns in upstate New York and Massachusetts, and now are settled in the Pioneer Valley of western Massachusetts. My academic background is in the History of Science, with a minor in Astronomy.

What kind of research did you do for A DARKLING SEA?
In the 1990s and early 2000s I wrote several roleplaying game sourcebooks. Several of them were guides to creating science fiction roleplaying settings — GURPS Space (4th Edition), Star Hero, and the Star Trek roleplaying game from Last Unicorn Games. Consequently I did a lot of research on creating planets, alien beings, and extraterrestrial civilizations. By the time I started work on Darkling Sea, I was pretty much steeped in all that information.

The other major type of research I did was Scuba diving. I got my open water certification back in 1992 and did a number of dives for a few years after that. That gave me some personal experience with underwater operation, and gave me a good feel for what it’s like to be down on the bottom.

Why SF? What do you love most about the genre?
I’ve been a science fiction fan since the 1970s. I don’t think I ever considered writing anything else, at least not seriously. As I said, this is what I’ve always wanted to do.

What I love about it is the sheer sense of possibilities. Science fiction is fantastic literature, but it’s plausible fantasy. This is stuff that could happen.

Who are a few of your favorite authors?
My favorite science fiction authors are: Poul Anderson, Arthur C. Clarke, William Gibson, Larry Niven, Alistair Reynolds, and Neal Stephenson. In fantasy I like James Blaylock, Robert E. Howard, H.P. Lovecraft, and Tim Powers. Outside the genre ghetto I like Jorge Luis Borges, Raymond Chandler, Rudyard Kipling, Hunter S. Thompson, and James Thurber.

Without thinking about it too much, if someone were to ask you for a quick book recommendation, what book would you suggest (besides your own, of course:))?
Books out right now that I’ve either read or am looking forward to: V-S Day by Allen Steele; The Emperor’s Blades, by Brian Staveley; or The Martian by Andy Weir.

If you could experience one book again for the very first time, which one would it be?
The short story collection Labyrinths, by Borges. Reading that was the most mind-blowing experience of my young life, and I’d love to re-experience that feeling.

What would you like to see readers take away from A DARKLING SEA?
If there’s a message in the book, it’s that “humans aren’t evil.” Our presence doesn’t contaminate and corrupt the Universe, and we’re capable of interacting peacefully with other civilizations.

What’s next for you this year?
I’ve completed another novel, called Corsair, which doesn’t have a release date yet but should be out sometime next year. It’s a near-future hard-SF take on space piracy, in which an expert hijacker of payloads launched from the Moon is hired for a final big score, but discovers his partners have a more sinister goal and so he must team up with his lifelong nemesis to defeat them.

Keep up with James: Website
Darkling Sea Banner (2)

On the planet Ilmatar, under a roof of ice a kilometer thick, a team of deep-sea diving scientists investigates the blind alien race that lives below. The Terran explorers have made an uneasy truce with the Sholen, their first extraterrestrial contact: so long as they don’t disturb the Ilmataran habitat, they’re free to conduct their missions in peace.

But when Henri Kerlerec, media personality and reckless adventurer, ends up sliced open by curious Ilmatarans, tensions between Terran and Sholen erupt, leading to a diplomatic disaster that threatens to escalate to war.

Against the backdrop of deep-sea guerrilla conflict, a new age of human exploration begins as alien cultures collide. Both sides seek the aid of the newly enlightened Ilmatarans. But what this struggle means for the natives—and the future of human exploration—is anything but certain, in A Darkling Sea by James Cambias.


  1. Me, I’m curious if there will be more novels set in the same universe as A DAKRLING SEA (Not necessarily on Ilmatar)

  2. Paul:

    I have plans for another novel in that same universe, but focusing on other characters and other worlds. But that will have to wait until at least the current project is done.

  3. Great author! Excited to see what comes next!!

  4. If you had a chance, would you move to Ilmatar?

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